Writing A Novel Is Like Doing An Archaeological Dig
Both are meticulous and involve creating something viable from fragments and clues.
I’m struggling with my current first draft. I’ve written 32,582 words over three months and it is not going well. The subject matter is difficult, which could cause the book to be unremittingly miserable. I want it to be about hope and forgiveness but I’m not there yet. I know some of the details that happen but not how to stitch them together.
As I write, I find myself saying “meh” about most of what I’ve produced. I journal with my main character several times a week. Each time I ask her if she’s sure that she wants to go this direction. Each time she responds by saying “That’s my story. That’s what happened. And it’s your job to write it down.”
And so I plod on. I have to trust that the right angle for the story is out there, somewhere.
Writing a novel is like doing an archaeological dig
Another way of looking at novel writing is that it is like doing an archaeological dig. My story exists but I have to dig and find it. I have to keep digging, piecing together fragments, discarding others, until my story is whole. With its own truth and integrity.
Here are the similarities between novel writing and archaeology:
Both are a hunch.
Both have some sketchy details.
Both require a lot of work to bring to fruition.
Both may take a while, much longer than your initial estimate.
Both may contain some disappointments and some false turns before they yield tangible results.
Both can be expensive and may not bring any financial return for all that hard work.
Both are meticulous because they involve piecing together clues and fragments to create a viable whole. This usually takes several attempts. Equally, you might have some fragments and have no idea how they fit together.
Let’s look at each stage of the process.
You have an idea for a story. You don’t have all the details. Perhaps you have a character or two. Maybe you know the beginning but after that, you’re not sure. You might be able to see one of the big explosive scenes but you have no idea how you’re going to get there.
In our archaeological example, you might have found some relic or bone fragment that suggests where something could be buried. You have picked out an area of land. Perhaps you have a clear idea of what’s down there or you might not know precisely.
You start work
In your story you start writing. It feels exciting. You discover something about your characters. You have a few scenes. You’re pleased with a piece of prose where you describe a landscape or conjure up the smells of the big city. You feel confident. This could work.
Out in the field, you start digging. It feels good to finally break ground and get going with the project. Maybe you find a couple of bones, or fragments from an old cooking pot or an indication that a building could once have stood there. It’s a relief to have your suspicions confirmed.
It becomes a slog
Your writing is going okay but it’s taking time. Longer than you thought. You’ve been at it for a few weeks and you haven’t even got to the halfway point. The scope of your story is growing and you realise that it is going to take a while before you get to the end. Maybe you are already suspecting that there is a plot hole ahead or a difficult topic and you’ve no idea how you are going to deal with it. On days when you feel down, you wonder whether you should have taken this on, if you’ll ever get to the end.
Outside, you’ve been digging for weeks. After a flurry of early finds there’s nothing. This is a problem because you were so sure that this was the site of the Iron Age communal kitchen. It’s going to be a long haul. You’re going to need more funding and more manpower. Before you can commit to that, you really need to be sure of what you think is there and that you’ve got the gumption to see it through.
You’ve got through that lacklustre phase. You’re not completely happy with your writing but it will do for now. You’ve just written a brilliant scene and your faith in the story is renewed.
In the dig you’ve found a few more fragments. Hooray. You knew they had to be down there. You are trowelling away in the earth with renewed vigour.
The spanner in the works
You’ve written yourself into a cul-de-sac. Or you’ve fallen into that plot hole and you’ve no idea where to go next. Or you realise that the person who you thought was a minor character is getting more and more interesting and the book would work better from their point of view. But that will turn your story on its head and require huge rewrites. Work comes to a screeching halt. It’s official, you’re stuck.
Out in the mud, your trowel hits on a small metal object. It’s pointed and sharp. You’re excited. This could be significant. After much digging and investigation, you realise it is some kind of tool. The only problem is, you know that these tools didn’t exist until after the period in which you thought the relics belonged. Your theory is blown. Work comes to a screeching halt. It’s official, you’re stuck.
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In the light of your new find you have to figure out what to do next with your story. You don’t want to re-write without knowing exactly what could happen. But you don’t know what could happen until you start writing again. You feel deflated at all the work you’ve done which isn’t much use now. You gird your loins and decide to continue with the new direction. You really hope it will yield some tangible results. You hate that there aren’t any guarantees of this.
In the dig, you go back to the drawing board and do some research. You scratch your head as you try to figure out how those pot fragments would be found together if that tool was around too. You come up with a new theory. You think you know what you’re looking for now. You really hope it will yield some tangible results. You hate that there aren’t any guarantees of this.
Rinse and repeat: more progress – the spanner in the works – the rethink
This could take weeks, months or years. Whether you’re putting words on the page or digging in a field, you keep plugging away. All the time you feel like you’re getting closer but you’re not there yet.
There are times of progress and times when nothing much seems to happen. There are whoops of excitement and discovery, and tears of disappointment. There is also embarrassment or shame at how long it is taking and the continual need to shore up your motivation to just keep plodding along.
You’ve come this far. You still know, deep down, that there’s a great story which just has to be told.
You’ve come this far. You still feel, deep in your gut, that this is a significant discovery which will further our understanding of the history of the world.
Even though everyone thinks you’re crazy, and sometimes you can’t help but agree with them, you keep going. It will work, eventually.
The moment of truth
At last, after several rewrites, beta reader feedback, scary red pen marks from an editor, you know you have it. You feel the truth and integrity of your story. It’s really different from how you started out and you never expected it to turn this way. But its finally there. It just needs a proof-read and then it’s ready to publish. It’s been a long haul. You’re battered from the process but you’re a much better writer now than you were at the beginning. You’re glad you saw it through. And you’ve already got some ideas for a sequel.
You’ve now dug the whole field. You’ve found all the fragments and remains. They fit together. It’s not what you first thought it was, but it has been an amazing discovery. People are patting you on the back and congratulating you. These relics have revealed so much about life back then. Now that you’ve cracked this discovery, you have a hunch about something else.
Why am I writing this article?
Writing a novel is not easy. It’s a lot more involved than having a crazy imagination and a reasonable grasp of English and grammar (which is how I arrogantly started off).
It takes a lot of rewrites. There is a lot of learning along the way and many waves of doubt and disappointment to negotiate. When this happens, it is easy to think you’re doing it wrong, or you’re a crap writer, or you’ll never get to the end. I want this comparison with archaeology to show you that all of these ups and downs are normal. Well known, best-selling authors have them too.
Eventually, I’m going to get there with my current project. When I do, it will have been worth all of this pain and frustration. Everything that I have gone through and learned to reach that point will be embedded in that writing. And that’s what will give it heart and soul.
I want you to persist with your writing too. It’s worth it. You can learn what you need to know, embark on yet another draft and make it better than the preceding one.
Eventually, you will get to the end. You will be proud of your work.
You will hold the book in your hands and say “I made this.”
How’s your work in progress coming along? Which stage are you at?
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